On Rollerblading and Mylinating
If I wanted to be an expert at rollerblading, and if I believed Malcomb Gladwell about achieving expertness, I would have about 9,997 more hours of rollerblading practice ahead of me, give or take a few minutes. In those hours of breath and sweat and flailing arms, my body would gradually get more familiar with the sensation of gliding on concrete. My sense of balance and timing would adapt to the reality of wheels. I would be able to anticipate dangers quicker. My awkward, jerky motions would turn into smooth, confident strides. It would become less an exercise in careening, and more of just plain exercise. Muscles in my legs and core, muscles that before were weak and unused, would get stronger and bigger.
Also, my brain would grow new white matter.
According to Rex Jung, a neuropsychologist interviewed by Krista Tippett for an episode of On Being about Creativity and the Brain, Myelinating is the process of forming new connections in the brain, new white matter. And in the process of becoming an expert at rollerblading, I would myelinate like a motherfucker.
If you want to know the truth, this last thing is mostly why I’ve decided to start rollerblading. Sure, it would be nice to be able to go zipping on wheels through the paved streets at the reservation with the dogs. Sure it would be cool to have them run and pull me, like Cesar’s dogs on the Dog Whisperer. But mostly, I want to exercise my brain. I want it to grow and not atrophy.
Also, I do not want to die.
Two studies, one from 2004 at University of Regensburg, and one from 2009 at Oxford University, examined how learning to juggle affected the brain. MRI scans of participants showed an increase in white matter and enhanced connections. I love this. How as I practice a new thing, my brain will physically change and grow, not just in an abstract sense—like I will develop a more nuanced perception of my environment, or better control over my actions, quicker reflexes and timing—but in a very concrete, physical sense. Certain parts will get bigger, like a muscle. I love what this says about the connection between body and mind, how doing a physical thing can increase cognitive ability.
Vats Hold Butter, Not Brains
I do not believe I am only my brain. I think “soul” and “essence” are good words, and I believe we have them, but I don’t think either exist entirely in our white and grey matter. When I refer to “me” I’m referring to something else. Something we don’t leave behind. Something we take with us when we die.
That said, I believe that if you destroyed my brain, you would destroy a significant part of me. If you took away my brain’s function, you would take away the “me” I am now. In all practicality, I would die. The me who likes oatmeal at breakfast and an IPA or six with dinner. The me who types stories into machines. He’d be gone. I could not speak. I could not laugh. I could not cry. I could not scream or whisper. I could not drive a car. Or play music. Or talk to a friend. I could not touch a woman’s face or feel the sweat at the small of her back or taste her sex. And all of this means that I would be dead. I would not be the same “me.” I am of the unshakeable conviction that this is true.
But the “essence,” the “soul” of me: that would still exist. Somewhere. Not here. Not physically. It would exist in the memories of other people. It would exist in stories. In words on paper. In images and photos.
Eulogies are Songs, and This is the Chorus
My brain surely looks different today than it did ten years ago. Also, I look different today than I did ten years ago. It’s not a coincidence. These two things are related.
When I look at myself, I don’t see the same person I used to see. And when I go searching for words, I don’t find the same ones I used to find. I’ve died many deaths. And I will die many more. I’ve written scores of eulogies for myself. And I’m composing at least three right now, not including this one.
I’ve listened to songs and other musical things that have made my heart so happy it swells in my chest and gives me the cold, tight goosebumps. A well-timed cymbal crash in a Wilco song. An Ani DiFranco lyric. An Oscar Peterson solo. The emotional build of a tune or speech. The appropriate silence.
The laugh of my wife.
The smile of my best friend.
The way we look at each other.
The scared cry in the middle of the night from my wife.
The tears of my best friend.
The silent tension of hospital rooms.
Boarding a plane to leave my dad.
The whispered voice of my sick mother.
I’ve taken my bed sheet and balled it with my fist. Both in times when I’m crying and all I want to do is die, and in times when I’m coming and everything gets boiled down to that one sweet thing, focused and clear and good and right. I’ve felt the cool, calm oblivion in pain and joy. And I’ve held on to it for as long as I can, the way you hold on to a good drunk.
And I’ve wished for some moments to come back to me. And I’ve hoped some moments never end. The good ones, and the bad ones.
I’ve loved the people I’ve loved. And I’ve watched them die. And I’ve felt okay about both.
The things I’ve done have changed me. The thoughts I’ve given into. The thoughts I’ve let consume me. The foods I’ve eaten. The drugs I’ve taken. The measured drinks at the measured times. The hours I’ve spent online, in front of a screen writing sentences. The things I’ve read. The movies I’ve watched. The thoughts I’ve squeezed into 140-characters or less. The drugs I’ve taken. The people I’ve fucked.
All the things I’ve chosen to practice in my life.
My brain is not the same. It is expanding and it is also dying. It is changing and growing and it is also remaining the same and atrophying. It has lived and died in the stories I’ve told. It has lived and died in the stories of others.
Everything I’ve written over the last year has ended up being about my mom. I think mostly this is a necessary and healthy symptom of her death. Even though it has put a freeze on some stories I was writing before she died, it has lead to me writing a lot of words that I wasn’t able to write before. So that’s good. But it has also given rise to a trend in my writing where she appears in pieces almost by accident, but not quite. Sort of an intentional accident.
A few months before my mom died, after I knew something was wrong with her brain, but before I knew what it was, she came to visit me in New Jersey. Things were not okay with her. Her staying with me made that painfully clear. I was scared for her. I was scared that she woke up at night and didn’t know where she was. I was scared and heartbroken when she fell asleep in front of the TV and woke up so confused only minutes later. The look of near panic on her face.
My fear often came out as annoyance. I was annoyed she couldn’t remember what we were doing from one moment to the next. I was annoyed she couldn’t converse with me like she used to. I was annoyed and angry she was not the same woman. I felt like I had already lost her. I felt like the woman I knew no longer existed and that this woman was an imposter.
And then, out of nowhere, there would be these moments of clarity. Moments of intelligence. Or wisdom. Or humor, or joy. And suddenly she was herself again. And I would get optimistic. And I would hold on to a hope that she wasn’t dead, after all.
One weekend while she was staying with me, I drove her to DC to see her best friend. It was a Saturday morning. It was drizzling and the I-95 was wet. We had just passed the Delaware toll booth into Maryland. I had country music on. It reminded me of when I was young and we would drive from Houston, Texas to Georgetown, Kentucky each summer to see my mom’s sister. And we’d drive through Arkansas and Tennessee and manually turn the dial (no digital scan) from one country music radio station to the next, listening to the songs that were popular in the early 80s. My mom was not a southerner. She grew up in Michigan. But she always liked country music. She liked the lyrics of country songs. She liked the voice and timbre and twang.
I didn’t have a lot of the country she knew readily available on our drive to DC that Saturday morning, but I did have some Old 97s, so I put that on to help break up the silence. And to help break up the monotony of the discussion we kept having: Where are we going?…Oh that’s right…How long will I be there?
I just heard a Soundcheck episode about how music can help people with dementia. How it can help them regain enthusiasm and confidence. How it can help them feel and remember. I know this was the case with my mom. When we listened to the songs she knew, she was always the person I remembered her to be. But even with songs she didn’t know. Even then, there was something there that wasn’t before.
When “Victoria” played that morning on our drive, my mom’s face, too often riddled with confusion or worry, got peaceful. She nodded her head to the beat. She said, I like this. The song had played on my various listening devices hundreds of times. Maybe thousands. Still today, it cycles on my iTunes at regular intervals. I don’t really pay any attention to the lyrics anymore, except for the way the words sound. Song lyrics and even some poetry is like that for me: less about the meaning and more about the sound.
This is the story of Victoria Lee,
She started off on percodan and ended up with me.
She lived in Berkeley ’til the earthquake shook her loose.
She lives in Texas now where nothin’ ever moves.
We drove, listening to the music and watching the windshield wipers push water off the glass in front of us. My mom seemed more relaxed. She took her hand off the “oh-shit” bar above the passenger-side window. She tapped her finger on her lap.
She lost her lover to an accident at sea.
She pushed him overboard and ended up with me.
My mom laughed. I asked her what was funny. She said, “‘Lost her lover to an accident at sea.’ Not exactly an ‘accident,’ was it?”
She’d only heard the song one time and she was listening close enough that she found the irony in the lyric and it had resonated. So much didn’t resonate with her anymore. She missed so much. And yet, she caught this. I’d listened to the song a lot. And, to be honest, I hadn’t ever given that particular lyric much thought. Even though I’m a fan of irony, I hadn’t ever explicitly thought about “accident at sea” being “pushed him overboard.” I have to admit: I’m a little embarrassed to admit this.
I looked at her, and right then I saw a version of my mom I hadn’t seen in a long time: Smart. Sharp. I remembered those road trips she and I used to take. I remembered how she loved songs by Willie or Waylin or Conway Twitty or John Conlee. I remembered her singing along to “Hello, Darlin’,” or “On The Road Again,” or “Rose Colored Glasses.” I remembered how those trips brought me so much happiness, just being with her. I remembered how comfortable I felt and how safe and secure, and how sure I was that as long as I was with her, everything would be okay.
I rarely felt any of that anymore. When I was with her, it usually made me anxious or worried. I was the caretaker. She was the child. But right then, I remembered that this woman from my past had existed. That she still existed somewhere. And that I loved that woman and also the woman that existed now. And it was possible to remember both of them and love each of them equally.
We Are the Stories We Tell
Memory defies the traditional metaphors we often use to describe it. Memory is not like a file cabinet, filled with documents that we thumb through until we find the right one. It is also not like a hard drive filled with 1’s and 0’s. When we remember a thing we aren’t “accessing” that thing. We aren’t going to a location and pulling it out, like some hard, true artifact, like we would in a library. Thank God. Because I can never find a damn thing in a file cabinet, or a library. If it is not out in the open for me to see, then I completely forget it exists.
Research done by Joe LeDoux, who has studied fear in rats at NYU, has demonstrated that remembering is actually a creative act rather than an act of searching and finding. If you want to learn more about this, listen to this great RadioLab episode. The two big findings of his studies are these: First of all, memories are actual physical things. They are structures, proteins, that connect one thing in our brain to another. Secondly, these proteins get re-created each time a person remembers something. I find the implications of this research fascinating. If we are creating a memory from scratch each time we remember it, we are creating that memory within a new context of our current life, of our current selves. This inherently changes the memory. A memory becomes something different each time we remember it.
Consider that: Remembering our stories is an act of creation. Each time. All our nonfiction is actually fiction.
Even when my mom could not remember what she ate for breakfast that day, or the very fact that she had a brain tumor that would likely kill her, she could remember many of the stories she’d told me about her childhood. When I would get frustrated answering questions about where she was and what was happening to her, I would try to get her thinking about these things, instead. I never knew my grandfather—her father—so I’ve always enjoyed hearing about him through her memories of him. The stories she told me while she was in the nursing home with a brain tumor were (more or less) the same stories she’d told me my entire life. If the findings from Joe LeDoux’s research are correct, then she was re-creating these memories in her ravished brain, even while she could not re-create memories about what was happening to her at that very moment: what she was eating for lunch, where we were going each afternoon at 4pm, or even me being there with her.
Where were these memories about her father? Were these even “memories” anymore? Or were they stories, created out of emotion and love, that she’d become good at telling. Were these stories her identity? Were these stories her “essence?” Her “soul?”
This idea, that we are the stories we tell, is a hypothesis put forth by a neurologist named Paul Broks who was on another RadioLab episode titled Who Am I. I like this idea a lot, and I’ve stolen it on more than one occasion. But I believe there is more to it.
We Are the Stories Other People Tell
When my sister was alone with my mom in the nursing home and she would mention me, my mom would say to her, “Oh, David was here?” She was surprised. She didn’t remember that I had been there with her for most of the day. She didn’t remember that I had come down from New Jersey to live in Dallas for a while. My sister would tell me this delicately because she didn’t want me to be hurt by it. But I wasn’t hurt by it. I was fascinated by it. And I was also grateful. Because whenever I walked into her room each morning, sometimes with Honey, sometimes by myself, she always smiled and she always knew who I was and she always was glad to see me.
Her story of me wasn’t gone. It’s just that her story of me did not involve this place she was in. Her story of me did not involve this time. I prefer the story she knew, frankly. I’m glad to be that story.
I Can Prove Empirically That I’m Not an Idiot
They say the best way to learn a thing is to teach it. The better we get at telling a story of something (the better we get at re-creating the memory) the more we come to know it. Also, the more we make the thing we’re teaching our own.
I’ve found this to be true. In one of the jobs I had years ago, I used to train people in various technologies. When I taught those technologies, I got better at understanding them myself. I put the technologies into language that was my own. I re-created those pieces of knowledge and made my own stories to illustrate them. I could remember these stories better than anything I’d ever read.
I am horrible at remembering jokes. This has always been a real handicap for me as a bartender. I’m also horrible at remembering plots and characters in books and movies. This was a real handicap for me as an English major and it continues to be a handicap for me as an avid consumer of culture. Sometimes I see a movie on a Saturday and by Sunday I can’t remember the name of it. But I can recall a scene from the movie. Or an actor that was in it (which I usually identify not by name but by “that actor who was in that other movie I love about that other thing.”) Mostly, this whole exercise makes me feel like an idiot.
I’ve come to know this about myself, that I can’t remember shit about plots and characters and names, and it’s made me careful about bringing up books or movies with friends. It’s impossible to appear like a reasonably intelligent person when you say to somebody, “I saw an excellent movie yesterday!” And then when they return with, “Oh yeah? What movie?” you give them a blank stare and say, “I forgot the name of it.”
Look, I’m fairly positive I am not an idiot. In fact, I believe I can prove this Empirically: 1) My college, despite my terrible remembering skills, awarded me a scholarship my junior year for “academic excellence.” 2) I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a 3.9 GPA. 3) I spent a part of my life programming Web sites to interact with databases (something that even now sounds completely daunting to me.) 4) Even though once, early on in my childhood, I put my shoes on the wrong feet, I never repeated the mistake…sober.
See? I’m fairly postive I am not an idiot. But I will tell you this: In college, I was terrified by exams that I knew were going to ask me to “ID” passages, or recall character names. I could write excellent essays regarding the concepts and themes of a book or story. But when it came to any factual pieces of information about the piece, those things never stuck. If I knew I had to remember actual, concrete facts, I would study feverishly for days, storing everything I could in my short-term memory, only to forget it a few days after the exam.
This troubles me and it scares the shit out of me. I’m worried about having the same fate as my mom. I already forget way more than I remember. Eventually, I will forget just about everything.
On the other hand there are many books and movies I can speak about in great depth and I can sound almost like I know what the hell I’m talking about. So here’s what I think: for me in, in that moment I am remembering and talking about a book or a movie, those things are no longer the movies or books themselves, they are the stories I tell about them. For me, for the people I am talking to.
You don’t get any more real than that. Nobody does.
There is Always a Blue-Eyed Man in a Suit
Even though our minds change, there are constants. There are things we keep remembering: there are the stories we continue to create and tell. Some of the stories are happy. And some of them are sad. But they stick and they stick. They are stubborn like that. Things happen, and we try to make sense out of them. And we get obsessed with them. And the obsession fuels our desire to understand them. And so we tell stories about them as a way to sort them out.
I’ve often heard it said that novelists tell the same stories over and over again. I think this is true, and not just of novelists. Songwriters, too. All artists, in fact, have their bugaboos. I can tell a mean story about love affairs and illicit sex. Or family dysfunction. Or existential angst. Or, on a happier note, dogs. To me, these are the only stories. There are no other ones worth telling. Don’t ever ask me to write a story about orphanhood. You’d be better off checking out Charles Dickens or John Irving. If you want something with historical accuracy, a sweeping saga perhaps, set in a particular time or place, James Michener might be your guy. If you like stories about the Jewish American experience you might be a Philip Roth fan. Or maybe you only read him for the kinky sex.
Nobody is good at all things. Even when we’re good at one thing, we’re really good a subset of that one thing. And it’s the thing that drives us to obsession. It’s the thing that drives us to work on it and work on it and try to perfect it.
We spend 10,000 hours on it. Maybe more.
But no matter how good we get at it, it never makes complete sense. We never get it “perfect.” If we did, we’d stop needing to practice it.
Even though my mom would forget that people had come to see her, she would remember certain things about certain visitors, and these things would get stuck in her brain. For instance, she forgot that her brother had come to see her. But she did remember there was a “blue-eyed man in a suit,” that had visited her, and she would mention this several times a day. The thing is, I have no idea who she was talking about. Her brother had blue eyes but he never had on a suit. There was a minister that came and he was dressed nicely, but also not in a suit. And I don’t think he had blue eyes, though I can’t say I noticed.
But she believed this as much as she believed anything: that a blue-eyed man in a suit had come to visit her. It was the story she told and it was as true as anything she knew, even when it wasn’t. It was concise. Not much of a plot. A bit open-ended. I’ll say this: it left a lot to the listener’s imagination. But it was her story, one of several she told in that last month or so, and looking back, I’m glad I got to hear her tell it. Because it was evidence of her spirit and her ability to create. It was evidence that she was alive. There were so many stories she could no longer tell. But she could tell that one, by God.
Sometimes, I find myself mourning the loss of the stories I used to know. I mourn the words I can no longer find. But then I’ll get Honey and Rothko and we’ll go for a ride in the truck, and we’ll go to the places we visit. We’ll walk paths and we’ll come back and look for rabbits under the shed. And those are words I didn’t used to have. And I’m so fucking grateful for them. And I’ll repeat them until I can’t. And they’ll be good.
And maybe eventually I’ll wear my rollerblades to the reservation. And my leg muscles will get bigger. And my balance will get better. And I’ll grow that new white matter and make those new connections in my brain. And I’ll myelenate like a motherfucker.
I don’t always find the words I want to find. The stories I tell are never perfect. But I will keep trying. And as long as I find words. Some words. Any words, goddamnit. As long as I do that, I will tell the story I have to tell, and I’ll be the person I talk about, which is what I have always wanted to be. And I’ll keep looking for my own blue-eyed man in a suit, right up to the end.
Creativity and the Everyday Brain, On Being. Rex Jung interviewed by Krista Tippett
Memory and Forgetting. RadioLab. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich talk to writer Jonah Lehrer and neuroscientist Joe LeDoux.
Who Am I. RadioLab. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich talk to writer Jonah Lehrer and neurologist Paul Broks.
Memories Through Music, Soundcheck. John Schaefer speaks with Dan Cohen about how dementia patients can benefit from music.
Juggling ‘Can Boost Brain Power’, BBC News.
Juggline Increases Brain Power, BBC News.
TAGS: Brain | Cancer | Mom | Writing